Thursday, 26 June 2008


I'm not normally one of those people who wins prizes at anything, but after years of fruitless efforts, I was finally rewarded, courtesy of those nice people at Qype, with a pair of theatre tickets to see Spamalot! at the Palace Theatre in London. The production had been strongly recommended by several friends, and my other half and I were not disappointed!

The plot is very roughly that of the film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, and a few of the scenes are taken from it almost directly, while other elements are entirely new. The whole thing is bound up together by a huge amount of singing and dancing - there’s scarcely a break between numbers at some points - and it’s all set off by a whole lot of typical Pythonesque silliness, even down to reproducing some of their trademark Terry Gilliam cartoons. Although one or two of the scenes didn’t quite work for me, they were far outweighed by the tears of laughter at other points - a fabulous monk-and-nun dancing routine scene being one of the unexpected highlights.

Python aficionados will get a lot of the ‘in’ jokes, taken from various sketches of the TV series as well as the film, and there’s a huge amount of ripping off and sending up of other Hollywood musicals too - half the fun is working out which bits. It’s also resolutely un-PC (but in a nice way) with plenty of completely gratuitously scantily-clad women dancers, a la Benny Hill. Expect lots of well-loved characters, including the Knights of Ni, the Black Knight, the Enchanter ‘Tim’ and the killer rabbit.

The current version has the lovely Sanjeev Bhaskar as King Arthur and Nina Söderquist as The Lady of the Lake. Both were wonderful, alongside some other choice performances - Jake Nightingale as Sir Lancelot and Andrew Spillet as Patsy spring especially to mind - alongside some stunning (but still very silly) performances in the dance routines. The theatre was packed, so expect to have to fight for a ticket. Just not like the Black Knight...


Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The British and Barbecues

Something seems to be happening. The weather is warming up (even when it’s raining); the pollen count is rising - along with anti-histamines sales; the gardens are looking at their best; and there’s the inevitable drift of week-end smoke across the garden, tinged with the faint smell of paraffin fire-lighters.

Yes, the British barbecue season is upon us.

Threats of a warm and dry week-end will now result in rushed purchases at DIY stores and garden centres all over the country, some buying their first barbecue on the spur of the moment, others buying up the last stocks of charcoal. In previous years there have been reports of ‘check-out rage’ as punters vie for the remaining bags of briquettes. Even students get in on the act, with the little portable barbecues – the ones that look like an over-large pie dish. It’s all big business.

I, however, will not be joining them. Call me a spoil-sport, or even a Whingeing Pom, but I loathe barbecues.

The idea is, of course, fine in principle. Al fresco dining has a long and proud tradition around the world. Think Greek: a heavy dining table on the patio laden with salads, olives, stuffed peppers, houmous, moussaka, fresh crusty bread and jugs of local red wine. Think Italian: more olives, salad, pasta, and yet more red wine. Think Spanish, with freshly fried fish on the beach. Think even of our cousins Down Under, with big juicy steaks and thick slabs of fresh tuna, beers cooling in a bucket of ice, all by the pool.

And now think of Britain. Dodgy weather; cheap tinny barbecue; chicken and sausages burning on the outside as the inside stays indefatigably raw; coals either burning like a blacksmith's furnace or stubbornly refusing to light after two hours of choice swearing; and white wine and beer slowly getting warm as the ice melts. Then there’s that peculiar British habit of eating off flimsy paper plates, which fold up as soon as you try to cut something. No other culture would dream of it – can you imagine the French resorting to a weedy cardboard disc from which to eat their cuisine?

And perhaps, worst of all, think of all those blokes who, having not cooked a bean for six months, suddenly propel themselves into the limelight like a celebrity chef, machismo and spatula at the ready. It’s like a horrible pastiche out of “Neighbours”.

Some people, of course, have learned a thing or two over the years. The first rule is to cook everything important in the kitchen rather than outside. Leave hubby to wave around his fork over a steak outside if you must, but have some baked potatoes in the oven, some lamb chops under the grill, and sausages in the pan. Inside.

No-one will ever know, but you’ll cut the chances of giving them food poisoning, and the food won’t have that lingering taste of paraffin. You can even cater for the veggies with some grilled vegetable burgers or similar (though I don’t really think barbecues and vegetarianism were ever meant to mix).

There is an alternative, of course, that works, invented by the French, and adopted by us Brits with gusto, but that seems to have gone out of fashion recently.

Why not go for a picnic?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

A taste of rural tranquility

There are some week-ends when you just need to escape completely from the hectic pace of West London, and one of my regular jaunts is Brighton.

That sometimes feels like a contradiction in terms given Brighton's reputation as being 'London-by-the-Sea', with its reputation for hedonism and sleazy goings-on. But of course it's easy to reach the beautiful Sussex countryside from Brighton - it's possible almost without thinking about it. Ten minutes takes you to the South Downs, and twenty takes you to the glorious Sussex Weald.

One of my favourite past-times when I'm in Sussex is visiting old churches. The County is rich in early mediaeval examples especially and, while they may lack the grandeur and wealth of the wool churches in Norfolk, Suffolk or Oxfordshire, or the stunning towers and woodwork of Somerset, they can more than make up for it in charm. Both Downs and Weald were poor until relatively recently, so many churches have survived relatively intact, without too many rebuildings. Even the Victorian period was relatively benign, although a few horrors still exist.

This week-end saw me biking along the A283 to two tiny villages I had not been to before, Sullington and Ashurst, both with equally small churches. Normally, it's a bit of a gamble visiting such places without calling ahead, as country churches are so often locked these days. But my luck was in, and both were open. I'm so glad they were, because they were among the loveliest I have visited in a long time.

First, Sullington: reached down a narrow lane off the A283 between the A24 and Storrington, this really does feel like a step back in time. The hamlet is tiny - just a few houses and a farm, with dramatic, sweeping views up towards the South Downs. The church appears around a corner, as if from nowhere: a perfect, small flint-walled building, with a squat tower, tall nave and short chancel, set in a churchyard full of ancient yews.

The church is equally ancient, dating from Saxon times, and contains a 13th century crusader tomb, complete with a rather badly mauled effigy. The church is beautifully maintained, and was filled with the most stunning flowers. Appropriately, next Saturday (28th June), there is a flower festival at the church.

The next stop was the tiny village of Ashurst, a few miles north of Steyning. Its parish church of St James really is a picture postcard: a stout flint tower wears a tall, octagonal spire, made of wooden shingles, rather like a hat. You might imagine it coming to life in some local fairy tale. The roof is all higgledy-piggledy, covered variously in red tiles and heavy Horsham slates. The churchyard was alive with bright summer flowers.

Inside is even more of a delight, especially to to any budding architectural historian, as the interior is as complex as any I have ever seen. An unusual feature is a huge 'king-post' roof, covering both nave and aisle, rising from the arcade, but it also has a lovely Sussex marble font and a 'Vamping Horn' - a sort of 18th century megaphone. The choir vestry was donated by Lord Laurence Olivier, who latterly lived and died in Ashurst, and whose funeral was held in St James.

On my way home, I felt truly lucky to have had the time and space to visit these lovely places. I have promised myself to return and attend a service, one day.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

How to stop your bike from getting nicked

Among other interests, one of my favourite ways of spending my time (or wasting it, depending on your viewpoint) is motorcycling. I'm not a boy racer by any stretch of the imagination (although my Fazer 600 will do quite a nice turn of speed if you need it...), and I'm perfectly happy pottering around the lanes of Sussex indulging in my various other past-times of seeking out old churches, decent pubs with decent real ale, (below the limit, though!) visiting castles, houses, gardens etc.

The problem with biking, though, is what to do with it when you get home. If you haven't got a garage (and few around Earl's Court have) then it has to go on the road somewhere. The choice is - or at least was - between a free motorcycle parking bay, or getting a resident's parking permit (£80, please) and slotting it in between the cars.

Neither is ideal: a chronic shortage of motorcycle bays means that they are stuffed full, and a great place to get your bike scratched. Most of the other machines around here are actually scooters, and they seem to multiply daily. But the ordinary parking bays aren't always much better: there's usually more room, but it only takes a thoughtless driver to get a bit too close for them to knock the bike over while reversing. (And that's happened to me more times than I like to admit).

Critically, both are very vulnerable to bike theft. This is a growing problem in London, and even a heavy chain doesn't guarantee safety: bikes are often lifted in their entirety into the back of a van, lock and all.

So Kensington & Chelsea's new bike bays are a really interesting idea: essentially, some are set aside for local residents who pay for a special permit, which entitles them to park in a motorcycle bay set aside just for residents, but provided with ground anchors. These are essentially lumps of stainless steel set firmly in the ground, with a robust rotating flip-up metal loops, through which you can pass a heavy bike chain, and so make it that bit more difficult for the thieves to nick your bike. The anchors are also distanced apart to ensure the bikes are set a reasonable distance, ie not hemmed in. A permit for this type of bay is £32 a year. That's still more than the old £18 permit, but at least there's some pay back for it.

At the same time, the Borough is increasing the number of motorcycle parking bays by over 60%, which should help ease the chronic shortage of space. Free motorcycle bays will still be provided for visitors close to major shopping and employment centres.

So, for once, a good news story in a London borough. It's a policy other London boroughs would do well to look at.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Walking an old canal

Last week-end saw my other half and I joining a walk organised by the Railway Ramblers along the route of the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal from Barnham to Chichester. OK, so it's not a railway, but the club does include the occasional walk along other old transport routes.

The canal has a fascinating history. The impetus for construction was the Napoleonic War in the opening years of the 19th century: goods going from London to the naval dockyards at Portsmouth usually went by ship and followed the coastal sea route, and were vulnerable to French raids. The canal was part of a route built to provide an inland alternative.

The first part of the canal crossed Portsea island to connect Portsmouth to Chichester Harbour. A second canal ran from Chichester Harbour into Chichester, and from a junction at Hunston another arm ran to Ford and the river Arun, which was used to navigate north to Pallingham. There, barges used the older Wey and Arun canal to strike north towards London. Construction began in 1818 and was completed in 1823, but the undertaking was never a commercial success: the Napoleonic wars had ended, coastal shipping had resumed and the advent of the railways from 1846 onwards provided unbeatable competition.

With the exception of the section to Chichester, which survived until 1906 (and is currently partly navigable and being restored), the rest of the canal was abandoned as early as 1850. As a result, some of the route has disappeared altogether, although enough artefacts remain to make it enjoyable both to walk and to see some industrial archaeology – many parts are still ‘in water’, although very heavily overgrown. It's also incredibly rural as a route, and the hedgerows are full of wild flowers, insect and bird life. Some of the flora is not quite so friendly though - 2m high nettles and the odd aggressive bramble meant I was glad to have worn long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt!

The other joys of the route were that we saw plenty of other items of interest: the mediaeval churches at Barnham and Merston; the late mediaeval Manor House at Barnham; and, perhaps best of all, the former canal-side pub - The Walnut Tree - at Runcton, where some real ale and a ploughman's lunch went down very well indeed...

I should add a thanks to Railway Ramblers for being so friendly and organising such a lovely (and informative) day out!

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Father's Day

Greetings from showery Brighton.

I don't know about you, but I always have trouble finding cards and gifts for my Dad. He's not a great one for presents, period, so for years it alternated between socks, hankies and whisky. Since then, I've branched out into books (strictly non-fiction), which provide a more easily varied solution: anything on local history, maps or transport usually does the trick. But cards, well: cards are another matter altogether, and Father's Day is the worst occasion.

For a start, many Father's Day cards seem to be aimed at Dads in their 40s or sons in their 20s, which are hardly suitable given that I'm in my 40s. I don't like the current trend for really rude cards, or unkind ones - modern humour can have something of a vicious streak, I find. Then there are the surreal ones, with or without odd rhymes: the ones that say, 'May the happy purple fish of life always seek your light bulb'. Or something like that. Maybe I'm going to the wrong shops, but I can't for the life of me see who they're aimed at, unless you Dad is a Dali aficionado. (Mine quite definitely isn't). In the past I've just sent generic 'blank' cards depicting a steam loco or something similar, but that seems such a cop-out.

So, in this year's desperate search, thank heavens for Sussex Stationers. This wonderful South Coast institution now has shops in London, but essentially it focuses on good but cheap stationery, greeting cards and discount books. It sounds a slightly disparate range, but believe me, it works. And wandering around today in Hove, the Sussex Stationers branch there had the perfect card: one focusing on the difficult choice for Dads between mowing the lawn, or watching football.

Given that its still perfect grass growing weather, and the European Cup is on the telly, it's spot on.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Grandeur in Liverpool

Last week-end saw my other half and I going up to Liverpool for a week-end with the in-laws. Amongst the inevitable visits to various watering holes, I managed to get my way long enough to visit to one of Britain's most iconic buildings: Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.

It's a place of superlatives, and a visit is a must on any stay in Liverpool. The cathedral is simply vast, and impresses in scale if nothing else, the height emphasised inside by the dark stone: some find this overbearing, other magnificent, but never forgettable.

Despite the late-Gothic style, this is entirely a 20th-century building. The diocese of Liverpool was created in 1880, but it was not until 1902 that a competition was held to design a cathedral in keeping with the wealthy and burgeoning port. Amazingly, the winner was just 22 years old, and still a student with no other buildings to his credit. But this was no ordinary student: Giles Gilbert Scott was the grandson of Sir George Gilbert Scott, the great Victorian church designer, and his father (also George Gilbert Scott) was a church architect as well. The building was literally to become his life's work.

Due to his inexperience, one of the competition assessors, G K Bodley, himself a well-known church architect, was appointed to work alongside him. The relationship was reportedly difficult, but after Bodley’s death in 1907, Scott continued alone. Scott’s design was for a huge, late Gothic church, which would dominate the hill-top site at St James's Mount. The plan was conventional, albeit with double transepts, with twin west towers echoing those of Durham.

The first part of the church to be built was the Lady Chapel, completed in 1910, using traditional church building techniques in stone. As the cathedral slowly developed, Scott modified the plans, which replaced the twin towers with a single central tower, and also simplified the Gothic detailing: the contrast between the intricate and delicate style of the Lady Chapel and the more monumental style of the rest of the cathedral is immediately striking. Another change was the adoption of reinforced concrete for the structure, clad in red sandstone, rather than continue using the traditional building techniques.

The choir and eastern transepts were completed in 1924, and the cathedral was consecrated in the presence of King George V. But rising costs, the 1930s’ depression and two World Wars hampered progress, and the cathedral was not finally completed until 1978, and a special service held in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. Scott was not to live to see his great work completed: he died in 1960.

But there is no doubt that his work was great. It is the largest church in the UK and vies with St John the Divine in New York as the world's largest Anglican church: it is the third largest (by floor area) in Europe after St Peter’s in Rome and Seville cathedral, although it may be larger in volume. Its 101m (331ft) bell-tower is the largest (though not quite the highest) in the world, with the heaviest and highest peal of bells. The central space under the tower (53m, 175ft) was also the highest until a recent clutch of skyscrapers were built with higher atria. But at 50m (161ft) it’s still impressive. The organ, with 10,268 pipes, is the largest in the UK, and the largest operational organ in the world. And so it goes on...

But this is more than just a building. The cathedral also has an active life of services, education, music and events to match its size, and is one of the most vibrant dioceses in the UK. A visit to a service to hear the sound of the magnificent organ reverberating through the interior is a truly memorable experience. Just as memorable is an ascent of the tower: 2 lifts take you most of the way, but the final climb involves 108 stairs. Thanks to its dominant position on St James’ Mount, the top is over 500ft above the River Mersey, and the views across Liverpool, the Wirral and Cheshire are stupendous.

There no doubt about it - this is a must see building.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Saving it for the Nation...

Sometimes the idea for a blog just pops out of nowhere, and other days nothing comes at all. But to-day’s came through the post, in the form of my National Trust Magazine.

This venerable institution was founded in 1895, by three Victorian philanthropists: Miss Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Concerned about the rapid and continued industrialisation then taking place and advent of urban sprawl, their aim was to find a way to enable the protection of threatened coastline, countryside and buildings.

It’s become such an institution that it’s often forgotten that it is still a charitable organisation, which receives no support from the Government. Just as well, then, that it has over 3.5 million members and over 50,000 volunteers. It’s also so well known for preserving Stately Homes that it is also easy to forget that it owns vast tracts of countryside and coast, from whole hillsides to spots with good views, and manages them to maximise biodiversity and wildlife.

And, despite the sometimes stuffy image (and I agree, many of the houses seem to reflect a twin-set and pearls image) it is at the forefront of modern conservation methods and increasingly considering things like its environmental impact and carbon footprint, and promoting locally grown produce from its farms. It’s also beginning to become more outward looking, in seeking to influence debates on things like urban form and conservation more widely in society.

How many places there are to visit close to you depends a lot on where you live: southern England does very well, whereas South Wales is a bit of a desert in comparison.

We do pretty well here in West London: Carlyle’s House in Chelsea is the home of the Scottish writer who counted in his social circle the likes of Dickens, Tennyson and Browning, preserved as it was in 1895. Just down the A4 is Osterley Park and House, the elegant creation of Robert Adam in 1761. Known for its perfectly preserved and spectacular interiors, the house also has a 16th stable block and an extensive park and gardens laid out in the 18th century.

Further out still is Ham House and Garden in Richmond, a large house built in the 17th century by the Duchess of Lauderdale, which has spacious and lovely gardens. At the other extreme, nestling in Westminster is the tiny Blewcoat School. Built in the 18th century for the education of the poor at the expense of a local brewer, it was still in use as a school in 1926. It’s now the Trust’s London gift shop.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

A trip to Cambridge

Well, yesterday was a beautiful day, wasn't it? So, rather than stay at home, it saw us trundling up to Cambridge for a day out of pleasure of both body (real ale) and mind (sightseeing).

Setting off from King's Cross - it always adds something, I think, if your journey starts from an iconic gateway - we arrived at Cambridge in time for a spot of lunch at first stop, the lovely 'Live and Let Live' pub. This is one of those places that you wish was your local. It's small and cosy, but clearly a lively place, rooted in its community. And, of course, it does some really good real ales. Everard’s Tiger Bitter and Nethergate Umbel are the regulars, the latter a pale summer ale with a subtle touch of coriander. One of our friends commented that he only likes coriander in curries and in carrot and coriander soup, but I disagree: I think it goes really well in beer.

Then for me it was off to visit the Chapel of King's College. It was a building that I have wanted to visit for a long time, and it didn't disappoint. Indeed, one of the most pleasurable aspects was discovering elements, like the stunning stained glass and the astonishing heraldic carvings, that I wasn't expecting, alongside elements like the glorious fan vaulting, for which it is best known. Then, I went across the road to the church of Great St Mary, the University Church. It's not the most exciting interior, but the views from the tower are excellent.

So, with the mind suitably refreshed, it was off across the Cam to the Pickerel for another pint (or two) - Woodforde Wherry (very nice) and Nelson’s Revenge (also very nice). This pub is supposedly the oldest in Cambridge, and clearly has a history as a Coaching Inn, as well as just being a nice pub. Next stop was the Eagle, back in town. Another historic pub with connections to Corpus Christi, it was also where Wilson and Crick used to relax after their work at the Cavendish Laboratory, and was where they chose to first announce their discovery of DNA. Another old Coaching Inn, it gets very busy with tourists and students alike, whereas the Pickerel and Live and Let Live both have quieter atmospheres.

So, it all made for a perfect day out. That, and the weather, of course...